Friday, January 06, 2012
Portrayal of Faith in The Life of Henrietta Lacks
I stayed up late to finish the nonfiction book The Life of Henrietta Lacks regarding the woman whose cells became immortal, living, dividing, spreading, and contributing monumentally to world-wide scientific research. Of course, there's a backstory which the author Rebecca Skloot adeptly investigated of the woman herself, her family, discrimination (always a good agenda item in today's modern lit), patient rights, and ethical medical practices.
When Skloot interviews the family of Henrietta, she finds them impoverished and angry that the cells have been used without their knowledge for many years and used to create a multi-million dollar industry without any windfall for them. The outrage indicated too is that Henrietta's family struggle with medical issues and can't even afford to see a doctor or pay medical bills. The family is African American, descendants from the slave trade, from the old colonial tobacco farms. They are struggling.
Within the Lacks' family are contrasts of those who stay out of legal trouble and those who are deep in it, but as Skloot enters their world, she describes encounters/brushes with their Christian faith (except for one brother who converted to Muslim, which didn't help his anger or his conflict with the law).
At times, Skloot seems to mix superstition with the family's religious beliefs quite heavily. And, their beliefs seem in much conflict with the ideas of science. She shows how the family's educational ignorance caused them to supplant their lack of knowledge in science with concepts from their categorized belief system which they can understand. For example, the family connects thoughts about how God is using Henrietta's cells to a) destroy (in some cases); b) pay retribution (in other cases); c) save the world from cancer; d) be angelic forms, etc. Such spiritual language is not used in the lab, and the family clearly grapples for meaning through their world-view, however wrought with scientific blunders.
Yet near the end of the book, Skloot, who never went to church or read the Bible, had a spiritual encounter when, in her presence, two family members had an intimate prayer meeting. The elder cousin, called a "disciple" for his close Christian faith walk, invites Skloot into faith and places a Bible in her hands as a gift. She senses an authenticity unbeknownst to her from the entire encounter.
Later in the book, many of the family members, including the much focused upon and interviewed daughter Deborah, accepts a spiritual premise which makes sense to them: God used Henrietta's cells for the good of human society, to heal sickness, to be like guardian angels blending into scientific purview. Deborah is able to let go of much strife, heaviness. Some of her brothers find peace with this also, even though the fact remains of the exploitation of this patient and her cells and the money made from them.
At first, I was distrustful with Skloot's presentation of religion. I think she focused a bit too much on the family's scientific ignorance which they applied to spiritual associations which often reeked of strange superstitions. However, on the other hand, I can almost hear this type of connection with people I have known or know. Yet the book, the artistic rendering, in general, can play up something for effect which I thought she did at times. I usually resent that type of manipulation. I was glad, at the end, that Skloot herself entered into the belief world, even for just a little bit, in order to understand the meaning which could be given to such a mysterious, scientific actuality of such disproportionate cell division and the good they provide to fighting sickness in the world.